The start of a new year in college brings with it a variety of orientation activities, like Convocation, Matriculation pledges, sing a longs and campus walks. While most new students are uncertain what to expect once they arrive to campus, first-generation college students may be even more perplexed or uncertain of themselves. Many welcome week or weekend activities presume that parents and their families are already familiar with university traditions and campus culture. But what about first-gen students?
Based on my experience working with this population (and my own personal experience), here are some suggestions for making them feel equally welcome and engaged at the start of school.
Have a targeted first-gen welcome session.
No matter how many students on campus identify as first-generation college, it is important to have targeted sessions for this population. An hour long panel or lunch goes a long way and also provides a great opportunity for new students to meet other students from similar backgrounds. First-gen faculty, staff and administrators should also be invited and encouraged to share their stories and a bit of their personal background.
Respect their space.
The Human Knot and Birdie on a Perch only make sense in two universes: summer camp and college orientation. For the rest of the world, these getting to you know you activities are just downright weird. They require too much touching, personal confessions and sharing of personal space that the average first-gen student is just not willing to do, especially not five minutes after meeting a group of strangers. Keep the ice breakers brief, meaningful (e.g., How Did You Get Your Name?) and free of bodily contact.
If a student opts out or is visibly uncomfortable, don’t make him feel badly for not participating or showing school spirit. Trust takes time.
Let parents and families know how long they are expected to stay . . . gently.
It’s an unspoken rule that parents are expected to bring their student to campus, help them move in, stay long enough to meet the roommate, and then head out shortly there after. But in a recent NY Times essay, author Jennine Capo Crucet describes how those expectations are not made clear. Whether due to excitement or fear, some families may plan to stay on campus all day and take some time and observe the new environment that their kid will be living in.
And when students are expected to be on their own, that message should be communicated clearly but gently. The time for departure can be an especially emotional time for first-gens.
Develop family oriented programs.
Many activities for parents during welcome week involve meeting administrators, most of whom their own student may never see again. Who knows what a provost does, for example? Further, a language barrier may exist. Move in weekend may find the families of first-generation college students feeling proud of their student but extremely nervous about what is expected of them because the terrain (including the terminology and physical landscape) may be unfamiliar to them.
When developing welcome programs, be culturally sensitive and aware that many families value interdependence and not rugged individualism. Develop activities that are inclusive of multiple generations, including grandparents and younger siblings. For instance, group photos are a great way for the entire family to express their enthusiasm.
Some people get dropped off and not moved in.
While some students may bring mom, dad, grandparents and siblings when they move into their residence halls, some students are dropped off rather than moved in. Schools should be on the look out for students who are checking in alone or whose parents have to leave early. In these instances, a friendly RA or peer mentor should be dispatched to assist such a student and to stay with her until other students arrive on the floor or until a campus-sponsored event or activity begins.
Have clear expectations and agendas.
Telling a student to go to an event just because it is “fun” or “cool” may not be the best approach. Instead, give a brief overview of what the activity is, how many people might be there, how long it lasts and generally what a student can expect to find. Transparent calendars or agendas are helpful, as well. This would mean including brief descriptions of events and activities.
When we take first-generation college students into account, it often forces university staff and administrators to address WHY we do what we do. Take a step back and look at campus traditions. Are they as clearly articulated as they can be? Are the goals and desired outcomes transparent and inclusive?
Ultimately, we want all students to feel welcome right from the start. And with the right amount of resources, support, and acceptance, new first-generation college students can and will thrive in their first year.